Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Active in the New York club scene since the ’80s, RuPaul Charles only really became a widely known public figure in 1993, when the video dropped for his single, “Supermodel (You Better Work).” Cue the drag queen’s sudden ubiquity, as RuPaul quickly popped up everywhere from talk shows like John & Leeza From Hollywood to the MTV Video Music Awards, where he presented (and sparred) with a fairly insulting Milton Berle. RuPaul also made a campy Christmas special, RuPaul’s Christmas Ball, in 1993, complete with appearances from acts like Nirvana and Elton John.
Fast-forward 20 years, and RuPaul is now a household name. Host and creator of Logo TV’s RuPaul’s Drag Race and all of its many spin-offs, Charles has made a career out of teaching people to love themselves, no matter what.
“Supermodel (You Better Work)” (1993)—himself
RuPaul: That was really the first time I felt like a star, like I had made it. I had been in the downtown scene for about 11, 12 years at that point, in bands and go-go dancing and hosting and all that kind of stuff. This is in New York. And finally I took the time to buckle down and work on a demo tape. That’s what they were called back then. And I shopped it around at different record labels, and I got a deal. So I had this song, made a video for it, and it was the first time I had ever had a Winnebago trailer to get ready in, and I knew that was the hallmark of being a star. So that was what really set the tone for the rest of my career. It felt like I had made it from that point on. And it’s still a really good video. It holds water today.
The A.V. Club: You’re still writing and recording songs, many of which are featured on Drag Race. How do you decide when to record and what to sing about?
R: Well, With RuPaul’s Drag Race, we use the music from my albums on the show, so we can usually do about two seasons per album. So right now, we’re working on the album for the next season. I usually do an album once every two or three years. The last three albums have been with Lucian Piane, who’s my songwriting partner, and the songs come about basically from what inspires me, what I think is funny, what I think works with my brand. Just like casting a movie, there are certain people, certain songs that work with my image. And certain songs that don’t. So usually we start there. Yesterday, we were working on a song that was about self-love, which is a big theme that I use.
AVC: You mentioned your brand. How has your brand changed in the past 20 years?
R: Obviously at the beginning I had to make allowances for people’s fear. Drag has always been thought of as something sexually subversive. So initially, I took sexuality out of my presentation. I was more like a Disney character that could be drawn very easily as a caricature and who is very kind and who Grandma and Grandpa wouldn’t be scared of. And that worked. It absolutely worked for me.
Over the years, because I became a household name, I didn’t have to do as much of that and I could become riskier and true to my downtown roots. Like in my movie, Starrbooty, which is completely X-rated and has a downtown, sort of John Waters kind of craziness. And it’s hilarious. It is the closest to my sense of humor that people have really ever experienced.
But early on, I had corporate sponsorship in different places, so I had to be a good, America’s drag queen-sweetheart. But as time went on, I got to loosen that up a bit.
AVC: How much of that do you think is you, and how much of that do you think is the way the culture has changed in the past 20 years, if at all?
R: That’s a good question. I think it’s a little bit of both.
Something I’ve learned really in the past 10 years is that the aversion to drag has less to do with the gay thing and more to do with the fact that drag queens break the fourth wall and call out the ego. Drag queens mock the ego, and the ego does not like that at all. We all have an ego. We all think that we are what it says we are on our birth certificates, on our drivers’ licenses, on our résumé. So drag queens are saying, “Actually, you’re none of those things.” You’re much more. There’s a certain uneasiness that people have with drag because they fear that we’re mocking their identity. And that hasn’t changed.
Now, of course the gay part of that has changed over the years. Not as much as I’d like and not as much as most people think, because we are in a masculine culture and anything to do with femininity, both from men and women, is thought of as weak and not important. It’s unfortunate, but we all have collectively agreed that that’s the world we want to live in. You can’t have a discussion about bullying unless you also have a discussion against our culture’s obsession with masculinity.
RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009-present)—himself
AVC: On Drag Race, you appear both in and out of drag. Was that because you wanted to show both sides of yourself, or because that male-to-female transition is part of the show?
R: It’s a little bit of both. The thing is, as an authority in drag, as the queen of queens, to really exercise my authority, I have to show myself as the man behind it so that you can get some dimension and depth behind what it is I’m doing and the fact that I can do it. My authority as the pre-eminent queen of queens would be undermined if I didn’t show myself out of drag on this show.
AVC: When you went into the show, what was your goal?
R: The original goal of the show was to celebrate drag and to show the true art form that is drag and how important it is to our culture. It’s been important to cultures throughout history with the court jester and the witch doctor and the shaman—all preach the same thing. Now obviously what we’re doing is fun and kiki and cut up, but at its core, drag really does remind every culture to not take it so seriously and to know that you are not your body. You are actually an extension of the power that created the whole universe. I know that gets a little bit woo-woo, Californian metaphysical, but honestly that’s really what it is, whether some queens know that or not. That is what the bigger message is, but of course we wanted to celebrate drag. After 9/11 and the Bush era, drag had really gone underground, as do all gender issues once a culture is embroiled in this sort of hostility, this sort of fear. So coming out of that era, we wanted to bring something to the forefront to celebrate that, to celebrate the art of drag.
AVC: And do you think it’s been successful?
R: Oh, absolutely. After this next season comes out in January, we will have unleashed 75 drag queens into the wild. And they are working and they are changing lives.
I also have a ranch in Wyoming and we obviously have cable or satellite TV, and all that stuff, and Logo comes on there. This is one of the most remote places you will ever, ever be, and I think about the kids who are in these places around the world who get to see this show and get to see these courageous characters who defy society’s rules and do their own thing regardless. That is the most political, amazing thing that could happen.
For me, when I was growing up, I had Monty Python on PBS. And that for me was like, “Wow, oh my God.” I felt like I had found my tribe. I can only imagine what RuPaul’s Drag Race is for kids in Perth, Australia, or in the outback somewhere, or in Africa. We’re in so many different countries. I can’t imagine what it must be like for young kids today to see this show.
AVC: And it’s good to spread the message that the culture is more than just you. You are the queen of queens, but there are more people out there.
R: Absolutely, yes. Sometimes I feel like Lestat making other vampires to play with because honestly, for me, it was just really me, and this is no ego thing. It’s just the way it worked out. It was me and a few other girls who were at the precipice of mainstream, but not really. Like Lady Bunny and Lypsinka. But that was it.
MTV Video Music Awards (1993)—himself
AVC: There’s this famous picture of you with Nirvana backstage at the VMAs that’s been floating around the Internet for years now. How did that picture come to be, and how did you become friends with Nirvana?
R: I literally met them on the step-and-repeat red carpet at the MTV Awards, and Kurt Cobain told me, “You know, we went to see you perform in Seattle, but you had already performed and left by the time we got there.” Because it was one of those gigs where I think I may have gone on at like 10 or something like that, and that tickled me. These are kids who come from the same irreverent, hippie, bohemian mentality that I came from. So of course they’re going to gravitate toward what I’m doing. And a lot of people don’t get that. A lot of people don’t have that computer program to understand what that is, that irreverence, that wink that drag is. A lot of people are offended by it and that’s the end of it. So Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love and the other kids in that band loved it, and you could see it in their faces when they’re taking the pictures. They’re not going boo, or it’s not like a joke. It’s like, “This is fucking cool.” And they were so cool about it that they came and appeared on my Christmas special that year.
AVC: They could probably appreciate the artistry in what you were doing.
R: Absolutely. And they respect it, but they understand that everything is a jokey thing. Not a jokey thing to mock, but a jokey thing in that is that the act of irreverence is very important. It’s so important to mock all of these things that our culture takes so seriously.
My kind, the bohemian kind, find comfort and refuge in each other, especially after the cruel hoax of society is uncovered by them. There’s a point like when Dorothy looks behind the curtain and says, “You’re the wizard?” There’s a point where you think, “I’ve been duped. What is this?” And beyond that, once you recover from that, we find comfort in the irreverence and making fun of it, and in duty and joy and music, color, laughter, and dancing. And we have to have that. Otherwise we don’t want to play.
AVC: Do you feel a responsibility to reach out to the next generation of people like you? Is that why you make shows like Drag Race?
R: No, no, no. I don’t feel an obligation. I feel an obligation to myself to entertain myself and if other people get something out of it, I’m like, right on. Right on. But my first goal is a selfish one. I’ve got to entertain myself. I’ve got to keep this interesting for myself. Otherwise, I don’t fuckin’ want to be here.
The Brady Bunch Movie (1995)—“Mrs. Cummings”
But I’m A Cheerleader (1999)—“Mike”
AVC: You’ve done a couple tongue-in-cheek projects. You were in the Brady Bunch movies. You were in But I’m A Cheerleader. Were those projects that you were drawn to for their wit?
R: Well, the Brady Bunch movies and all that kind of stuff, those are just a paycheck. I don’t want to bust your bubble. But they offered me some money to do something and I said, sure, okay, but obviously Starrbooty is a labor of love like my music and the things that I do on my own. The other things are just, you know, they said, “Hey, would you do this for some money?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll do it for money.” But those people do understand the irreverence of it and that it’s congruent with my outlook. I have really nothing to do with it other than the paycheck part of it.
The Eyes Of Tammy Faye (2000)—Narrator
AVC: Was The Eyes Of Tammy Faye a paycheck or was that a passion project?
R: Oh no, no. That was a passion. I loved her. In fact, when I was a teenager in Atlanta, I watched that show religiously because her joy and her loveliness. She was really an Ascended Master, because regardless of the corruption that her husband was about, what she was doing was real and it was about loving yourself, loving other people, and being a representative of love. I’m getting just choked up thinking about her, because she really was that. She was like a Pollyanna. And let me tell you something. Pollyanna is an Ascended Master, because she understood the ugliness of the world, but she chose to focus—I’m actually getting choked up talking about this—she chose to see the beauty in life.
Actually, I had a dream about a year ago, and Tammy Faye appeared to me in this dream and she said, “Ru, a child of God is innocent. Focus on people’s innocence, not their guilt.” And that is who she was. I just saw on a Tumblr just about three days ago a picture I’d never seen of Tammy Faye and myself at Sundance with ice cream cones in our hands. I’d never seen the picture before. And we’re holding ice cream cones. She was absolutely lovely and a really courageous person. Courageous because in the face of life’s great hoax that I was talking about earlier she courageously chose to see the beauty and that the child of God is innocent.
Of course the movie was produced and directed by people I work with today. These are my friends from the East Village who produce RuPaul’s Drag Race and the VH1 show I did and they produced my first album in ’86. They’re part of my family, so it was a passion project for me. I loved it.